Engaging Proximity Experts in Early Childhood Systems Design

Strategies for Family-Centric Systems Building
Blog Post
June 20, 2023

At the end of last year, our team wrote about the launch of WeVision Early Ed, a new project developed by the Bainum Family Foundation, that attempts to make the ideal child care system a reality by shifting outdated mindsets, or mental models, about child care that stand in the way of a more effective and equitable child care system. They identify five core mindsets that hold the current child care system in place, including “what child care is, who should be served, who should pay, how we should define quality, and how we should make decisions.” Bainum interviewed “proximity experts”—families, educators, and administrators with intimate knowledge of the child care system—to create the alternative, transformative mindsets necessary for systemic change. The report describes what these transformative mindsets are and what the early childhood system might look like if they were designed by people who embody these core shifts.

Marica Cox Mitchell, Vice President of Early Childhood at the Bainum Family Foundation, notes that “transformative mindsets set the stage for transformative policies.” The next step requires policy and advocacy strategies designed and informed by proximity experts. But how does this happen?

New resources from Child Trends and Start Early offer state leaders a framework for engaging proximity experts. Conversation Starters on Building More Equitable Early Childhood Systems are two new briefs that provide a potential strategy for facilitating a mindset shift about governance and decision-making that leverages the expertise and experience of families, educators, and administrators. In particular, the briefs challenge the outdated notion that policymakers and government agencies know best and discuss ways to include the expertise of families and place families’ experiences at the center of early childhood systems.

The first brief discusses what it would mean for early childhood leaders and families to co-define a successful family-centric early childhood system in terms of how families experience it. A shared definition provides a starting point for guiding decisions about how to design, organize, and measure the impact of systems. Importantly, the authors note that success looks different in different contexts. They suggest exploring the following statements with families to arrive at a definition of success that is meaningful to their community context.

What does it mean for families to experience…

  • Seamless availability of programs and services they need and prefer?
  • Supports that address families’ physical, mental, and relational health?
  • Supports that are culturally affirming, linguistically supportive, and celebrate family strengths?
  • Opportunities to co-design and implement with systems builders and to make their needs and preferences have influence in other ways?

In the second brief, the authors highlight four elements to strengthen and center families’ voices in a family-centric early childhood system. First, this involves identifying grassroots community-based organizations that are already doing authentic family engagement work. Community-based organizations bring knowledge about families’ varied levels of interest and capacity in engagement, are skilled in facilitating authentic and actionable feedback loops, and have established trust and credibility. While this first step is important, it does not necessitate systems change. Another ingredient is securing leaders who have the capacity, authority, and motivation to build partnerships with community-based organizations to influence early childhood systems, policies, and programs. Given the siloed nature of the early childhood system, leaders are needed to transform and develop intentionally coordinated and integrated systems as defined by families.

A third ingredient is developing formal processes to collect, share, and use information to monitor progress toward their system’s goals. Current data infrastructure does not fully capture families’ experiences and integrate their input. More work is needed to increase capacity for research and evaluation and share back with families how their input was incorporated into the learning cycle. In addition, families should be compensated for engaging in systems building and improvement work, without it impacting their access to or eligibility for benefits. One final ingredient is access to sustained, flexible funding that prioritizes family engagement. More funds like the Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five are needed to allow family-centric systems building work to move at the speed it needs, rather than within a prescribed period of time.

The WeVision EarlyEd project draws a connection between our outdated mindsets and the early childhood system we have today. The project challenges us to think about how focusing on shifting mindsets, such as who and how we should make decisions, can lead to more affirming and equitable experiences for families, educators, and administrators. Perhaps these briefs, or Conversation Starters, offer some strategies for systems builders looking to make this shift and center families’ experiences in systems building and improvement activities.

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